Conscripts in the Algerian War
Author: Soraya Laribi
Wishing to carry out their own “Algerian Dien Bien Phu”, members of the National Liberation Front (FLN), known as frontistes, unleashed the Toussaint Rouge (“Bloody All Saints’ Day”) a few months after Indochina gained its independence. Seventy simultaneous attacks, carried out on the night of 31 October to 1 November 1954, were behind the “events in Algeria”, which the French government wanted to quickly put a stop to with “law enforcement” and “pacification” operations and by sending in large numbers of troops. These were young men – “French of European Origin” (FSE) or “French of North African Origin” (FSNA), to use the terminology of the time, born either in metropolitan France or in the colonies – who were conscripted into the army to cut their teeth in a context in which both frontistes and the messalistes of the Algerian Nationalist Movement (MNA) were fighting for national liberation, which was finally achieved on 3 July and celebrated on 5 July 1962.
Normally lasting 12 months (Law No 46-188 of 14 February 1946), the probationary period which was military service was extended to 18 months (Law No 50-1478 of 30 November 1950), owing to the discrepancy between the low numbers in France, due to falling birth rates, and excessively high numbers in Algeria, because of the mobilisation of French of North African origin. As a result, conscripts were mobilised at age 20 in France and age 21 in Algeria. Military service could be deferred to a later date, with two deferrals being permitted under Article 23 of the Law of 31 March 1928: the one-year “renewable deferral” (up to the age of 23 or 27, depending on the circumstances) and the “six-month deferral”, allowed once, for the purposes of studying. However, conscripts were kept in the army beyond the legal duration of their service, which was extended to 27 months after the French Parliament voted “special powers” on 12 March 1956, proposed by prime minister Guy Mollet, who attracted the wrath of the European community of Algiers on his visit of 6 February (nicknamed the “Day of the Tomatoes”). The measure proved insufficient, and previously released conscripts were called up again.
Arrival of a unit of conscripts recalled to the infantry, 17 June 1956, Algiers. © Raymond Varoqui/ECPAD/Défense
Thus, between 1956 and 1962, some 400 000 to 470 000 conscripts were permanently stationed in Algeria, in departments across the country (known as wilayas by the nationalists) which, in the vast majority of cases, they were discovering for the first time. Some were sent to “seal the borders”, in particular on the Morice Line in Eastern Algeria, following the independence of Tunisia and Morocco in 1956. Others joined the Specialised Administrative Sections, serving as primary school teachers in the mountains of Kabylia or in Constantine Province, or else were sent to the region of Aurès, as depicted in the 1972 film by René Vautier. Some also fought in paratrooper units and, as such, were mobilised in the Battle of Algiers (7 January to 9 October 1957), which saw the widespread use of methods of psychological warfare, such as the system of arrest and detention, torture, and the disappearance of large numbers of nationalists (the most emblematic being that of the communist mathematician and anti-colonialist militant Maurice Audin). Those who took part in the Challe Plan (6 February 1959 to 6 April 1961) in the Oran, Algiers and Ouarsenis regions were tasked primarily with dismantling the political and administrative organisation of the FLN.
Following the Évian Accords of 18 March 1962, by a curious twist of fate, the partisans of the Secret Army Organisation (OAS) – which had been founded in Spain by Pierre Lagaillarde and Jean-Jacques Susini, in February 1961, and rejected Algerian self-determination – became the target in the highly Europeanised cities of Algiers and Oran, and no longer the fellaghas. Most conscripts were hostile to the partisans of French Algeria, as shown by their violent clashes during the Battle of Bab El Oued or the Rue d’Isly massacre, on 26 March 1962, in Algiers. Conscripts were also victims of violence, abducted or arrested by members of the FLN, both prior to and during this period, and the joint committees responsible for dealing with these breaches of the ceasefire were ineffectual. Some of the conscripts who were taken prisoner by the FLN had been visited by the Red Cross and the International Committee of the Red Cross and should, according to the ceasefire agreements, have been released, but many of them could no longer be found and so were added to the heavy toll of victims, in the category “missing”.
To prevent the French of European origin in Algiers and Oran from siding with the OAS, on 17 May 1962 the armed forces minister, Pierre Messmer, adopted an order codenamed the “Simoun Plan”, which cancelled the deferrals that had been granted to them and required them to enlist early. Under this measure, part of “Operation Fouchet”, instituted by the High Commissioner of the Republic, these conscripts were sent overseas (to France or the Federal Republic of Germany) to do their military service, which for some meant the certainty of not returning home to Algeria. During this period of transition of power – characterised, moreover, by the break-up of the FLN and fratricidal confrontations between frontistes and messalistes – other conscripts, including French of European origin from metropolitan France, were assigned to the local force that had been created to keep order after the ceasefire of 19 March, as well as to compete with the National Liberation Army (ALN), the FLN’s armed wing. French conscripts of North African origin who had been transferred there by the French authorities were incited by the wilayas to desert with their weapons to buy their pardon; they were termed “Marsiens” (in a reference to the March ceasefire).
While there may have been some notable acts of draft-dodging (refusal to enter the ranks) or disobedience (refusal to carry out orders) – for instance, the obstruction of trains in 1955 and 1956 by soldiers and conscripts recalled to the ranks, or the deliberately late return from leave by a number of conscripts – these remained few, since they were punishable under the Code of Military Justice, laid down primarily by the laws of 9 and 31 March 1928.
The symbolic power of military service was still considerable in the 1950s and 1960s, so that there were actually few desertions (the act of leaving your unit and taking your weapons with you or going over to the enemy) before the Évian Accords; it was a rite of passage, and the legend of the Resistance still wielded a powerful influence over these young people whose parents and grandparents had fought in the Second World War. Yet it did little to prevent weariness among conscripts – who sought to alleviate their solitude through a variety of activities, including photography (some had pictures printed in Le Bled, a magazine published by the French Army’s psychological action service), writing letters to their families or listening to the radio – and they longed to be demobbed.
Young conscripts from Alsace at the fort of Seriet and in Tablat, 11 October 1956, Algiers region, Tablet, Seriet. © Saurin/ECPAD/Défense
Despite the positive factors represented by the progressive reduction of military service, the repatriation of French conscripts of European origin to metropolitan France, as well as the return of military service to 18 months and the prospects of modernisation of the army, the report on the morale of servicemen drawn up by the military command for 1962 highlights what a low ebb they had reached. The mass departure from Algeria of the French of European origin (pieds noirs) and the abandonment of the French of North African origin who were loyal to France, together with the auxiliaries (wrongly termed harkis) – massacred, sent to the borders to carry out mine clearance, or enlisted in the People’s National Army (ANP) – succeeded in creating a feeling of utter disillusionment among many conscripts. Many fell into silence as, in addition to physical wounds and the grief at the loss of dead or missing comrades, they suffered from severe psychological disorders.
The Law of 9 July 1965 made military service officially 16 months. The Law of 17 June 1966, meanwhile, annulled “offences against State security or in connection with the events in Algeria”. This concerned insurrection against the legal government and amnestied OAS members, as well as those who fought against that organisation. The Law of 31 July 1968 carried on this process, by annulling all convictions that had been made. These two laws, therefore, cleared the names not only of conscripts who had joined the OAS in Algeria or in France, but also of deserters and draft dodgers.
A period of amnesia and forgetting with regard to the “nameless war” gave way to “a resurfacing of repressed memories”, with the publication of first-hand accounts by former conscripts, interviews with historians – in particular in the 2000s when the use of torture was under discussion – and the making of films. The need for forums in which to express themselves, or to meet in “communities of grief”, prompted them to join organisations like the National Federation of Veterans in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia (FNACA), regarded as left-wing, or the National Union of Servicemen in North Africa (UNCAFN), considered right-wing. After succeeding in having their status as veterans recognised in 1974, the demands of those now referred to as the “Veterans of Algeria” were multiple. The choice of a date for remembrance of this period finally recognised as “war” in 1999, by French president Jacques Chirac, also divided the FNACA and UNCAFN, the former preferring 19 March (the date of the ceasefire), the latter 16 October. In the end, the former date was chosen (Law No 2012-1361 of 6 December 2012) by President François Hollande, on the 50th anniversary of the end of the Algerian War.
A series of “remembrance sites” and burial sites have been built in recent years to pay tribute to the conscripts of the Algerian War, such as the National Memorial to the Algerian War and the fighting in Morocco and Tunisia, inaugurated on Quai Branly on 5 December 2002, and the stone slab in memory of the “Abdellys disappeared”, laid in Père Lachaise cemetery in 2015.
Soraya Laribi, PhD in history (Sorbonne University)